Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Dec. 13, 2016, 1:39pm

2016 has been a fruitful year for Afghanistan’s opium farmers. Following a sharp decline in production last year, farms across the country this year brimmed with the bright pink flowers of the plant used to make heroin. But Afghan farmers were not the only ones profiting from a year of successful harvests. The resurgent Taliban, which controls many of the largest opium-producing provinces and plays an increasingly central role in the crop’s production, experienced a year of battlefield advances and expanded profits. As Afghan, and often Taliban-controlled, opium production resurges, so too will the trafficking of heroin from the South Asian country, leaving behind a trail of addicts, opportunistic smugglers, and terrorists.

This year’s opium cultivation in Afghanistan, up 43 percent since last year, constitutes the country’s third-highest opium poppy production level since 1994. After a noticeable decline in production last year, the area under cultivation increased by 10 percent and the average opium yield for Afghanistan’s poppy farmers rose by 30 percent all while opium eradication, led by Afghan security forces, decreased by 91 percent. For those in a position to profit from opium cultivation, 2016 may have felt like the perfect year. Territory recaptured from Army control, and the presence of corrupt government officials willing to look the other way or cooperate, meant that more land could be cultivated while the overpowered Army was forced to halt its eradication efforts in order to regroup. At the same time, higher crop yields from plentiful rain, a lack of major diseases, and even the introduction of genetically modified seeds contributed to the surge in opium production.

Of course, a surge in Afghan opium production will have grave consequences. Not only does an increasing level of opium production call into question the effectiveness of $8.5 billion in U.S.’s anti-narcotic spending in Afghanistan since 2002, but the continued stream of heroin onto European and North American streets also proves that the adverse effects of Afghanistan’s opium production are both enduring and global. And while its reach is indeed global, nowhere are the affects of increased opium production felt more strongly than where the crop begins its journey – in Afghanistan and often in Taliban-controlled farms. In fact, over half of Afghanistan’s opium is produced in Helmand and Kandahar, provinces that have served as strongholds for the Islamist insurgency over the years. In these provinces, the Taliban will have collected a hefty sum this harvest from increased tax payments, in the form of narcotics or cash, to the insurgents from the farmers.

While estimating the Taliban’s hold on the $3 billion annual opium trade in Afghanistan has proved to be a difficult task, the group’s moves reflect the importance of the opium trade and production to their survival. After months of bloody but often successful attacks, the battle with Afghan security forces in Helmand calmed again this year during the harvest. Overrun by the earlier clashes, the Afghan army was forced to regroup and recruit new members instead of leading hopeful eradication missions. When the Taliban resumed its fight against the Afghan forces, with deeper pockets at the end of a successful harvest, the group reportedly killed over 100 police officers and soldiers before entering Helmand’s capital, the strategically important city of Lashkar Gah. Though Afghan forces with the support of U.S. troops eventually pushed the Taliban out of the province’s capital, 2016 witnessed a refortified Taliban on the battlefield and a surge in Afghan opium production, much of which undoubtedly was produced on Taliban-controlled farms.

While the Taliban, believed to generate between 20-40% of its income from drugs, will certainly collect higher taxes this year, the group is playing an increasingly grassroots role in the production and trafficking of opium. According to reports, Taliban fighters have begun to frequently work alongside migrant farmers during the opium harvest. Not only do the insurgents offer protection for the farmer against Afghan forces attempting to collect bribes or destroy their crops, but fighters also have the opportunity to recruit young Afghan men into potential fighters. The Taliban, helped in part by government eradication efforts which infuriate poor opium farmers and isolate them from Kabul, is winning the war for “political capital” in many southern opium-producing populations.

While Taliban fighters are more frequently spotted on the farms during the opium harvest, costly battles and a diminishing supply of funds from longtime donors in the Gulf have forced the group into becoming more heavily involved in the smuggling and trafficking of opium. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury added Taliban shadow governor of Helmand province Mullah Naim Barich to its list of Foreign Narcotics Kingpins for his role in international narcotics trafficking and even “owning his own drug loads.” Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on the arrest of the Taliban’s shadow governor of Nimruz, Mullah Abdul Rashid Baluch, who was caught not after facilitating suicide attacks, as he often did, but while personally escorting a metric ton of opium and a plethora of weapons. Faced with increased difficulties from the toll of ongoing clashes and reduced donor funds, the Taliban has turned to smuggling and trafficking of opium. As a result, many are referring to the group as a quasi-drug cartel, rather than an insurgency with ambitions to govern.

Yet the Taliban’s increased ventures into smuggling only represent the early stages of the opium/heroin trail. Traditionally, Afghan opiates have traveled the “Balkan route.” Starting in Afghanistan, often traveling into Pakistan before reaching Iran, then through southeast Turkey, Afghan opiates are converted into heroin to be sold in West and Central Europe. The Balkan route, valued at $26.8 billion, has enriched groups like the PKK, which profits from a 7% tax on the opiates smuggled through its territories. While the implications of a steady stream of cash for the PKK are undoubtedly severe, especially in light of another deadly attack in Turkey claimed by a PKK offshoot, groups of criminals across South Asia, Iran, Turkey and Europe have benefited from the traditional route of Afghan opiates. And while these groups have profited, Iranian authorities, 3,700 of which have been killed over the past three decades fighting traffickers, have paid dearly for collecting 89% of all opium seizures in the world.

However, the Balkan route is becoming increasingly impractical for smugglers due to the lawlessness caused by the Syrian war and its regional effects and the ongoing clashes between Turkish authorities and Kurdish separatists. Thus, the Balkan route of Afghan opiates is giving way to a route through the caucuses and often across the Black Sea to ports in Ukraine and Romania. It should come as no surprise that Turkey experienced a 30% decline in opiate seizures in 2015 while Romania seized its largest shipment of heroin in its history. On the other hand, Australian authorities have reported increased heroin seizures off the coast of East Africa. According to reports, the drugs are smuggled from Afghanistan and into Pakistan or Iran to the Makran Coast where it is loaded. Since the use of these routes has increased dramatically only over the past few years, many of the identities of the main trafficking groups leading the Makran Coast and Black Sea routes remain unknown.

New challenges await anti-narcotics forces around the world in combating Afghan opiates. This year’s increased production of opiates managed by a resurgent Taliban and the emergence of conflicts in southeast Turkey has led to less traditional routes of trafficking being utilized. While the Taliban along with Turkish (including the PKK), European and Iranian traffickers will still hold roles in the changing world of Afghan opiate smuggling, new players may also emerge with ambitions to capture a role in the billion dollar trade.

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